Turning brokenness into beauty: Buddhists respond to anti-Asian violence

Deborah Netburn, Los Angeles Times on

Published in Religious News

In the years after the Civil War, Asian Americans were denied voting rights in part because they were seen as too different — including their spiritual traditions — to be assimilated into American culture. In the 1940s, Japanese Buddhist priests were classified as a threat to national security in the prelude to America's entry into World War II.

Funie Hsu, a professor of American Studies at San Jose State University, said that another type of anti-Asian violence occurred during the 1960s and subsequent decades, as counterculture Westerners, rejecting a society they viewed as corrupted by materialism and militarism, turned to Eastern religions to seek enlightenment. As Buddhist books, magazines and retreat centers began to highlight the work of white converts, and spiritual rebels such as Jack Kerouac popularized the ideal of the wandering, truth-seeking "dharma bum," some Asian Americans felt marginalized in their own hereditary religion.

"In my experience, the way that Asian Americans have suffered racism the most in the United States is not only through hate and exclusionary laws, but by erasure and devisualization," said Mushim Patricia Ikeda, a teacher at the East Bay Meditation Center in Oakland who spent 25 years trying to build bridges between hereditary Buddhist communities and largely white convert groups. It was an effort that she said largely failed.

Asian and Asian American Buddhists have been victims of religious hate in recent years as well. Buddhist temples were vandalized, including six in Santa Ana and Westminister and one in Little Tokyo, after the start of the pandemic. At one temple in Santa Ana, a person spray-painted the word "Jesus" on a stone statue of the Buddha.

"The damage to property is not what keeps us up at night or what bothers us the most, it's the hate crime in itself and the negative impact to interfaith relations in our community," the Venerable Vien Hay of the Dieu Ngu Temple, one of the vandalized temples in Westminster, told The Times at the time.

"The history of Buddhism in America is confronting anti-Asian violence," Hsu said.


As Asian American Buddhist leaders grapple with the current wave of violence in the wake of the pandemic, many are turning to lessons from their history and religion to inspire resilience in their sanghas, or communities.

"Policy and political solutions are important, but in the face of the suffering people are experiencing, tending to their spirit and giving them fortitude is probably the most important thing religion can do," said the Rev. Cristina Moon of Daihonzan Chozen-Ji International Zen Dojo in Honolulu.

One way to do that is to help individual Buddhist communities remember the courage and drive that it took for their predecessors to come to America and make a better future for themselves in the face of discrimination and violence, she said.

"Just reminding people that we've been through tough times before and we persevered by holding on to who we are and staying true to that faith," she said.


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